Is physical health the be-all to successful aging?

In rural communities across Alaska, it is not uncommon to see young people on four-wheelers or snow machines, riding around town with family and friends and spending time outdoors. On the same roads you see elders walking alone or with others to visit friends or family, check their mail or buy groceries, or visit the Elder luncheon. As someone who grew up with Elders who walked everywhere, I love to walk so I typically decline rides offered by the youth and get to know the community by walking.

The Elders we have visited over the years have shared other ways of staying active to maintain good physical health, including berry picking, subsistence activities, cleaning your home, walking to the post office, or walking around your house as much as you are able. Successful aging is subjective, and we define what is important to us – how would you define successful aging and does physical health have an important role in your aging process?

Maintaining good physical health was the most frequently discussed theme in my study, which aligns with western notions of successful aging. What differs from Alaska Native and Western perspectives on physical health and successful aging is that non-Natives state that physical health needs to be perfect and you cannot have any illnesses, diseases, or disabilities in order to age successfully. It is important to note that even though physical health was instrumental in Elders’ perceptions of successful aging, poor physical health (having a disability, being homebound, cancer diagnosis) did not eliminate them from viewing themselves or others in their community as aging well. Most of the literature on successful aging among minority populations found that elders with a chronic illness or disability still viewed themselves as aging successfully, which is how Alaska Native Elders in our study view aging.

The concept of physical health encompassed numerous facets of life for the Elders, such as eating a traditional diet, being as active as they are able, and abstaining from drugs and alcohol. An article by Brown (2005) in the Harvard magazine (November–December 2005) discusses the importance of physical activity throughout life and says that it goes hand in hand with successful aging. “Exercise, one of the best tools we can give our older adults to take charge of their own health, mentally and physically” (Brown, 2005, p. 28J). Brown says exercise can help ease feelings of stress, depression, and loneliness and we need to find personal alternatives such as walking, ballet, canoeing and rowing, hiking, or even bird-watching and berry-picking outings. What are your alternatives to physical activity? Even moderate exercise, such as staying busy in the community, helps improve quality of life, both mentally and physically, and helps Elders maintain their involvement in their family and community and have a positive outlook on life and growing older in a good way.

This is the third in a series of articles by Jordan Lewis, PhD, with comments and reflections on “Alaska Native Successful Aging - What it means to be an Elder,” which are two studies completed in 2009 and 2019. Jordan is an Associate Professor with the WWAMI School of Medical Education, University of Alaska Anchorage, and Director of the National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders at University of Alaska Anchorage.

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